This is the last in a series of six posts on the 2013 Oscar nominees for Best Original Score. I have already parsed each of the five nominated scores in some detail in my previous posts. So what is my prediction for the winner? Mychael Danna’s score for Life of Pi. Although this probably comes as no surprise, it is worth considering many of the things that this score has going for it.
Past Oscar Wins
Data from the last ten years of the Oscars reveals some interesting patterns in the winners for Best Original Score. First and foremost, 90% of scores that won were for films that were also nominated for Best Picture. This year, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Argo have nominations for both Best Score and Best Picture. The last score to win whose film was not nominated for Best Picture was Eliot Goldenthal’s score to Frida all the way back in 2002. This is not to say that scores for films without a Best Picture nomination won’t win, but certainly the odds are against them.
Of the past ten years of Best Score winners, 60% of them were for films that also had nominations for both Best Picture and Best Director. This year, only Life of Pi and Lincoln have these other nominations. It’s not as if Argo is out of the running, but the vast majority of recent winning scores are linked to these other nominations.
Besides the Oscars, we might also consider the histories of two other prestigious prizes, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. In the past ten years, 70% of Best Score winners also took home the Golden Globe earlier in the year. And in fact, Golden Globe score winners have also won the Oscar for the last five years in a row. This year, Life of Pi won the Golden Globe.
Some might say that because Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall won the BAFTA this year, that it will have an advantage on Oscar night. But in the past ten years, only 40% of BAFTA winners went on to win the Oscar as well. From this perspective, things look better for Life of Pi than for Skyfall.
Subjective Aspects of the Score
Life of Pi is the only film to earn its composer two Oscar nominations, one for the score and one for the song, “Pi’s Lullaby”. Even if the song loses to Adele’s and Paul Epworth’s heavily favoured “Skyfall”, the nomination speaks well of Life of Pi’s score since the song is actually a part of Mychael Danna’s original score. In addition, “Pi’s Lullaby” occurs over the main titles, which introduces the sense innocence and wonder of Pi’s childhood with a delightful montage of various zoo animals that the music suits perfectly. The sequence is therefore a “money scene” for Danna’s music, in other words a scene in which the music is both highly emotional and unforgettable.
Life of Pi is also the kind of film that calls for prominent, foregrounded scoring in many scenes. So it is unlikely to come away from the film not having noticed the music at all. But more than that, the emphasis on consonant chords and lush, sustained harmonies in the score suits the highly spiritual and emotional nature of the film. Consider, for example, the music we hear as Pi helplessly watches the ship with all his family members sink into the ocean’s depths. Its solemnity and beauty creates a heart-wrenching effect that is hard to forget, especially with the use of a choir, which enters at 0:25 in this clip:
Comparison with the Other Nominees
The score for Life of Pi also looks very strong when compared to the other nominees. Neither Skyfall nor Anna Karenina are nominated for either Best Picture or Best Director, a fact that, as we saw, significantly decreases their chances of winning Best Score. Moreover, both films have an extra strike against them. Anna Karenina was the only film of the Best Score nominees not to break into the 100 top-grossing films of 2012, a fact that certainly harms its chances in a business that is intensely profit-driven. Skyfall earns the extra strike because, incredible as it may seem, a James Bond score has never taken home the Oscar.
While John Williams’ score for Lincoln is a sensitive treatment of the subject matter, it is not what you would call prominent film music. Since most of the film is given to elegantly polished dialogue that must be heard above any other sounds, space for the music is far more limited than in most other Williams scores. In addition, most of our attention during the film is focused on understanding the complexity of the dialogue, the political motivations of each of the characters, and even trying to keep the names of many characters straight. Again, this leaves little room in our memory for music, no matter how well crafted it may be.
In Argo, Alexandre Desplat gives us a fully competent score that fits the emotional ups and downs of the narrative. But, like Lincoln, there is so little music in the film that it becomes difficult to remember afterwards. Most of the score is devoted to atmospheric music rather than themes and leitmotifs that stick out in one’s mind. The most memorable music in the score occurs when the American hideaways have safely made it out of Iran by plane. But even so, this scene is at the end of the film. The music we have heard up to this point is hard to recall, especially as much of it is placed under the all-important dialogue.
Factors Against Life of Pi Winning
Now of course I’m not saying that Life of Pi is sure to win, only that it is the most likely of the five. So we ought to consider some of the factors working against a win for Life of Pi.
Although a Bond score has never won, Skyfall has the advantage of being the 50th-anniversary film of the Bond franchise. Newman is also a veteran of the business that many believe is long overdue for an Oscar win. Many Academy members may feel the same way. Finally, as I mentioned, its title song is favoured to win and that could carry over into a win for the score, even though the song is not Newman’s.
Despite the subdued quality of Lincoln’s score, the film seems tailor-made to please the Academy. According to an L.A. Times study, 94% of the Academy is Caucasian, 77% are male, and the median age is 62. A film that glorifies the actions of a prominent white male of about the same age might well appeal to most members. It might well be the case that most members vote for this score not only because it is a well done score by one of the all-time greats of film composers, but also because they appreciate Lincoln as a whole and wish to recognize its merits with awards in several categories.
And while Desplat’s score for Argo may not be all that memorable or lengthy, the film has claimed the Best Picture award from the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild Awards, and the Directors Guild Awards. This momentum that Argo has built up could translate into a win for Desplat.
But in the end, all of this evidence in favour of Life of Pi could be entirely moot. After all, this is the Oscars, and as we know, anything can happen.